Sunday, September 11, 2011

10 years later

Of course a lot of the blogosphere has been full of 9/11 thoughts this weekend, and I'll briefly join them.

Over the past decade, one trend I've noticed in myself is a continually more optimistic view of individual people, and a continually more pessimistic view of groups.

I know lots of great Christians who live in the bible belt and vote Republican, but I fear the religious right looks and acts insane on a regular basis.

I know some brilliant and compassionate Democrats, but I fear the liberal left looks and acts impotent to tackle the social challenges of 21st Century America.

I've met atheists, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists and am proud to call them my friends. But I fear that religiously-fueled wars and acts of terrorism will continue to have major impact on billions of lives.

In all this complexity, my final wish for us is surprisingly simple. As we each grow in maturity and love, I hope that we could each picture ourselves in front of Osama Bin Laden on September 12, 2001. One day after his "victory" in killing thousands of Americans and frightening millions more in an intricate and well-executed plan.

And my hope is that if I, or you, was face-to-face with this lethal killer one day late, that we would not be filled with falsely-righteous rage nor falsely-compassionate cowardice. I hope we could see him as a human being, horribly flawed and guilty, although perhaps no more than we would have been had we been born in his shoes.

If I faced OBL on Sept. 12, 2001, I don't know what I'd do. But no matter what action I took, I hope that the very best version of myself would be filled with an overwhelming sense that this man had killed the innocent in hate and premeditation. And that this kind of act had a precedent, and only one proper response:

Father forgive him, for he knows not what he's done.

But until each one of us becomes that best version of ourselves, we'll keep looking for those bright spots in the midst of religious, military and political wars.

God bless America, and God bless our enemies.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

A strange example of what it might mean to "honor thy mother"

The bible has a few different instances of instructions to children, and how they should obey their parents.

Things change as the child grows, though, and eventually they mature into adults with children of their own. At that point, while a 30yo might not be called to always obey their own parents, they are certainly called to honor them.

Mother's Day is surely an opportunity for us adults to honor our mothers, and we should do so! It is a special relationship and no matter how awesome, loving, flawed or absent your own mother might have been, she has undoubdedly shaped much of the way you live.

I look at the way Jesus honored his mother in the bible, and it didn't always include obedience or even explicit words of affection:

-- When as a 12yo he went to the temple, he knew his mother would be worried about him. But for some reason he felt that he was in the right place, and there was a higher purpose than his mother's peace of mind.
-- When she asked him to make more wine for a wedding party, he spoke to her in a way that could be seen as disrespectful ("Woman, it is not yet my time"). Yet he obeyed and performed what we consider may have been his first public miracle.
-- As he was dying on the cross, his love for his mother shone through. We only see seven recorded statements from Jesus on the cross, which makes sense for someone dying of asphyxiation. One of those final seven statements was to make sure she would not be alone ("behold your son", talking about John) and to make sure someone would take care of her ("behold your mother", talking to John).

So sometimes Jesus honored his mother with words, but other times his words were mixed and his honor took a much more complex form through the way he lived.

Mine works the same.

I will call my mother tomorrow and tell her I love her, you bet! Yet my life also includes very complex, difficult decisions as I care for my own family, and I can honor my mother by how I make those decisions.

As an example, I quit my job last week. And I don't have another job lined up yet. This could be seen superficially as a rebellious rejection of my mother's teachings, since there were many times she told my brother and I never to leave a job until we already had the next one in place.

Yet a few years ago my brother also quit a job without having the next one landed. What's happening here? Were we honoring our mother?

I say wholeheartedly, "Yes we are!"

Because while she taught us to find a job before leaving a job, she also taught us higher values of integrity, faith and a generous and light hand with material wealth.

Integrity called me to leave this job now since I was in a leadership position, and was being pushed to make commitments both publicly and privately that I knew I couldn't live up to.

Faith reminded me that when I live with integrity (and really, even when I don't), things usually work out and my family will not starve.

A decade's worth of careful and conscious stewardship by my wife and I have put us in a financial position to be without a job, yet still without hardship.

So sometimes we have a choice -- to follow a single instruction from our mother, or to break that instruction by following the more holistic themes of her teaching.

These are the ways we honor her. I will call her and say I love her. I will raise my children with dedication and sacrifice. I will remember that I'm not the most important person in the world. And sometimes I'll even quit a job, turn away from a friend or ruffle feathers at church.

At a simple view, those things might not seem like they honor my mother. But thank God, she knows that life is not always simple!

Love you Mom!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

How I reconcile different biblical views of eternity

Instead of using words like "traditionalism", "universalism" and "Calvinism", I'd like to change the language into something more approachable. How about these words:

1) Judgment
2) Mercy
3) Divine plan

I think we have a love/hate relationship with those three things:

1) We love judgment sometimes because it fulfills our sense of fairness, but we'd hate that to mean that we or our loved ones must suffer in eternal torment.

2) We love mercy because, well... who wouldn't? But we hate that it seems to conflict with our sense of justice, and isn't all this stuff on earth a charade if God's mercy just sends everyone to heaven anyway?

3) We love that God has a master plan, but hate the idea that any of it might overrule our free will.

My picture of eternity embraces all three of these concepts without conflict. Here's how:


I've never met a human being who was 100% pure, good and blameless. We all have junk, and we'll still have some of that junk when we die and will carry that junk right to the gates of heaven on judgment day.

So what happens with our junk when we get to heaven? I don't think God snaps his fingers and makes it vanish, because even though the junk is bad it's a very real and core part of my soul at that point. To delete it like a rotten computer program not only fundamentally changes my personality, but it does so in the cheapest way possible!

I do believe that God wants me to release my baggage, but I think it will be a process. One that is undeniably painful, possibly slow, but ultimately much more rewarding and powerful than just having my issues washed away.

I think God will give us perspective to see how our faults have hurt others and hurt ourselves. He'll give us the ability to empathize powerfully and see ourselves through the eyes of our friends and enemies. We'll gain understanding in whole new ways about the consequences of sin, and how our bad choices caused so much hardship.

When it's my turn, God will probably show me things like how my anger crushed my children's spirits. How my emotional apathy left others cold and unfulfilled in their hour of need. How my selfishness held me back and caused me to miss so many beautiful moments and relationships that would have blossomed in the cause of shared generosity.

This will suck, no doubt. It's judgment; it's not supposed to be fun. But I think it awaits every one of us, and that the purpose is redemptive.

God doesn't want us to just make it to heaven however possible so he can erase the bad stuff. He wants us to genuinely progress into the best version of ourselves that He intended all along, and will give us the tools, the time and the support to get there.

That's why I believe the stakes of righteousness are indeed high in this life. The lessons we learn now save us pain both today and later on. The ripple effects continue through eternity.


I've never met a human being who was 100% vile, evil and free of virtue. We all have spots of nobility, and we'll still have that when we die and will carry that right to the gates of heaven and beyond.

But in the section above I said that I also think we'll bring baggage with us into the next life. And if we're still walking around with baggage, we're going to need lots and lots of God's mercy.

I think He'll have more than enough, and it will work seamlessly with his judgment.

Think about it -- judgment left to run untethered means massive consequences for small offenses. You call me a name, I have you fired. You cut me off in traffic, I shoot you. You hurt my child, I kill your whole family. You make some bad choices for a few decades, I condemn you to eternal punishment with no chance of escape? Those sentences don't fit the crimes.

But if mercy runs untethered, then no growth happens and the lack of justice saps the meaning out of our choices. A kid gets whatever they want, they turn spoiled. A man of power lives above the law, he never confronts his personal demons. A female celebrity listens only to her adoring posse and feels like a helpless victim when things go wrong in life, because surely it's not her fault.

We need both mercy and judgment working together to become better people. I do help my kids experience consequences for their actions, but only in the context of a relationship with me that includes unconditional love. I'm a very imperfect father but I understand that for my kids to be their best, I have to display mercy, and give them the confidence that they are always mine, no matter what. That there are very few guarantees in life, and one of them is my love.

God does that too, and will keep offering us His love and mercy as we move through His judgment.

Divine Plan

We ascribe a lot of different character traits to God based on the bible: love, faithfulness, righteousness, even jealousy! But one I rarely see, and I believe is a crucial and endearing part of His character, is stubborness.

It takes a stubborn soul to peg Moses as a leader after 40 years in Egypt and 40 years as a secluded rancher. It takes a stubborn soul to stick with the nation of Israel for centuries as their faith wavered up and down. It takes a stubborn soul to look at 12 fishermen, yokels and backbiters and say with confidence, "this is my tribe, and I'll make something great out of them."

I can't read the bible with all the obvious stubborness of God and think that He'll give up on the majority of His creation on judgment day. That soul by soul, eternity is sealed after a few short years of human life. He's too stubborn for that, and I think He'll wait us out.

I believe the bible passages that say God is redeeming all things back to Himself, and that this whole universe is a one-way road headed home. There are plenty of exits and detours along the way, but God's got all the time in the world. There's no need to force people to do anything, or overpower our free will. He'll offer a path of judgment that will make us face up to our shortcomings, all within the context of mercy and patience.

So I do think eternity will include judgment. For everyone.

And I think eternity will include mercy. For everyone.

And I think that everything is going perfectly to plan, and that your free will is 100% intact and you can take things at exactly the pace you want in your walk towards God. The slower you go, the tougher it might be and the longer it will take, but what is time to God?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The battle over eternity

I have a knack for taking two opposing views and finding some things of great merit in each of them.

I also have a knack for taking two opposing views and finding glaring weaknesses in each of them.

Basically, on any given day both sides might love me or hate me. And for my own opinion, it usually ends up somewhere in the middle, and I choose to not play the game of polarity.

The battle over eternity is no different. Traditional believers in heaven/hell, annihilationists, universalists, Calvinists... all have had their days in the sun over the past two millenia. And each can easily cite scriptures to support their views, and rightly so. Each one has merit based on biblical texts. Yet each view of eternity also has serious problems reconciling fully with the biblical texts.

Actually, I understated that. Each view cannot possibly reconcile fully with the biblical texts. Because the bible says things like this:

Matthew 25:41 -- "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

2 Thessalonians 1:9 -- "They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power"

Colossians 19-20 -- "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross."

Revelation 20:13 -- "The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done."

I picked just four passages but already I wish anyone good luck in reconciling them all, especially if you want to get deep into the historical, cultural and language contexts of each. So in this fight between hell and universalism, between free will and predestination, between eternal souls and annihilation... I choose not to play. I think it's a false choice.

Maybe the bible has all those different statements because each viewpoint of eternity is partly true!

Traditional view -- I think you're right. There will be judgment on judgment day, and it won't all be pretty and graceful.

Universalists -- I think you're right. The final story will be more beautiful than we can possibly imagine, and in the end, the gospel (GOOD NEWS) will prevail.

Calvinists -- I think you're right. God knew what he was doing with this universe right from the beginning, and it's going perfectly to plan.

Annihilationists -- I think you're right. There are pieces of our souls, and perhaps even parts of creation, that will one day be destroyed forever.

But I also think that in other ways, every view has it wrong. And to take any one view as the only truth leaves out some important elements of who God is, and what He has in store for us.

To me it's a false choice. There's another way.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Yep, still here!

Life's been crazy. I'll break it down briefly by category:


I resigned my position as a Director of two departments at the end of the year, but didn't quit the company. Since then I've been job searching as much as possible while still doing odd jobs and projects at the office.

Now the Chairman has changed directions and wants me to take over three departments, two of which I'll be building from scratch. All of this is exciting, but the fundamentals of the business are still extremely weak and we'll probably be bankrupt in a year or so, which is why I resigned my position in the first place.

For now, though, I have some job security while I continue the search. And I get to be extremely challenged and under pressure (which I have to admit, is when I perform best) during my day job.

Family health

I had the worst flu of my life last month, with five days of high fever and at least two weeks of lethargy and weakness. Wouldn't be surprised at all if it was a swine flu variant.

Two of the kids also got the flu, and one of them got strep throat on top of it. All three kids have had ear infections already this year, and we're on our sixth or seventh dose of antibiotics since January. If there's a race to reaching our extremly high health insurance deductible, I think we'll win. And this week Jamie's lingering cold has progressed to the point where she's lost her voice.

Two weeks ago we hosted a party at our house for some fellow church families -- 12 kids running around outside while I grilled pork tenderloin. Samantha tried a trick on her bike and... didn't quite make it. Busted up some of her teeth, with one dangling by a thread and another chipped in half. Unfortunately all of them are adult teeth, and grew in less than a year ago. Fortunately she's been spared from implants or root canals so far, and we may end up dodging most of those things and only needing some cosmetic work.

My grammy has been sick and it's brought home the beautiful truth that I am a mid-30s male with all four of his granpdarents still alive. They are so dear to me, and I know that eventually it will be their time to move on. That gets more real as time passes, and I'm quite inexperienced at handling that kind of loss. It's a part of life I've mostly dodged so far.


Jamie and I had that meeting with the financial team, and shared our concerns that the church would sit on money or fund administrative things while acute needs went unmet in our community.

Last week, an elder stood up in front of the whole congregation and announced the decision that they would spend the contingency fund (set aside for a replacement air conditioner when our 12-year-old unit inevitably breaks down) on the community needs. And if the air conditioner dies, we'll find a way to fund it if it's really important. The church clapped and cheered at the news.

The bible class group I taught for about six months (about 50 people, mostly retired/elderly) has shifted topics and is taking on the issue of science and faith. It's a huge interest of mine and this is the first time our church has focused on the science part, without forcing a literal bible interpretation.

It's being taught by the following, all members our our little 50-person group:
-- Former CEO of BP Amoco Canada and BP Amoco Eurasia. He's a PhD geophysicist.
-- Another geophysicist, this one an expert in carbon dating and fossils, who will talk to us about the Cambrian explosion
-- A mathematician and astronomer who was on the Apollo 11 team, and was responsible for all the formulas that got the module from earth orbit to the moon, and back. He showed us his notes and scribbles, and had an amazing model of the rocket that he disassembled piece-by-piece to recreate the mission.
-- A bioengineer who will talk us through some of the amazing ways organisms work

We live in Houston, Texas, which in a way can be called a scientific center of the world. Science has three core disciplines: 1) Mathematics/physics 2) Biology 3) Earth science. And here locally we have 1) NASA 2) The world's leading medical center 3) America's leading oil/gas industry.

You can't live here and have any influence whatsoever in the community if you teach 12th Century science as the only biblically-accurate option. I love the fact our church is taking this on and giving a voice to those of us who not only believe in an old earth and universe, but have used that model to expand our appreciation and love for God.

Life's moving pretty fast. I'm still around though, if only to comment on your own blogs more often that I write here. But eventually I'll have another burst of posts, like I always do.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Entitlement (a rant)

There's a lot of talk right now about President Obama's budget plan that he submitted for approval:

-- Democrats are furious that he actually included spending cuts in the plan, in programs that serve students, the poor and the unemployed.

-- Republicans are furious that he didn't cut enough spending, and they have an alternative plan to remove more "discretionary" programs from the budget.

-- Neither side is saying or doing a thing about the "entitlement" programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), even though they're nearly half the current federal budget.

-- Neither side is saying or doing a thing about military spending, even though it's a full 20% of our budget and our accomplishments on the battlefield have been arguable in value for the past decade.

-- Neither side is saying or doing a thing about increasing tax revenues to shrink the deficit, even though almost half of all Americans paid zero federal income tax last year.

What they've focused on is the mere 20% of the budget that they deem "discretionary" (veteran benefits, scientific research, education, foreign aid, transportation, etc...).

I have a strong opinion on this, and you might want to sit down first, since this is so antithetical to the current debate in Washington...

It's all discretionary.

We're not required to have a military force six times larger than every other country on the planet, nor to exceed the nuclear weapon capacity of the rest of the world combined.

We're not required to spend half our budget taking care of the elderly, no matter how noble that is, and no matter how much that impacts people I love. Because in another decade or so, when the boomers are retired, caring for them at this level will no longer be possible.

We're not entitled to any governmental benefits. My taxes go to meet today's needs -- they're not put away in a fund for me to tap into later if I'm disabled or retired. My taxes serve my country today; I have no claim on the money tomorrow.

We're not entitled to borrow from the rest of the world. China and others are sovereign nations with their own interests in mind, and that may not always include giving the US a loan.

We're not entitled to an ever-increasing quality of life. Nations fall, economies crumble, the world takes three steps forward and two steps back. If we look at Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa we recognize that our relative stability and consistent upward trajectory is the exception, not the rule.

We're not entitled to keep riding the gravy train with cheap prescription drugs and free medical care at the expense of the few, and we're not entitled to get rich with new business models that exploit the poorer and less educated.

We're not entitled to millions of dollars in life-saving care for our precious babies born months prematurely. We're not entitled to millions of dollars in life-saving care for our elderly family member who just suffered their third stroke.

We're not entitled to bailouts, tax breaks, unemployment benefits, food stamps, mortgage interest deductions, smooth interstate highways, college education, free housing or monthly checks from Uncle Sam.

I wish we could do all of those things (without raising taxes!) but we can't.

We get what we pay for, and what we work for. And if we continue to ignore the real budget albatrosses, focus instead on nitpicky expenses and completely ignore a declining tax revenue base, then we'll get less. A lot less.

And we'll deserve it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An application of the golden rule

Some of you know that my favorite part of the bible is the Sermon on the Mount. This hardly makes me unique; in fact it's probably one of the most often cited "favorite" sections of the bible.

I just love it - -the buildup as Jesus' ministry gets going, the slap-your-face boldness of his message of charity and forgiveness, I even love the differences in sequence and phrasing between Matthew's account and Luke's account.

But one of the key messages of the sermon is surely the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would want them to do to you.

This isn't a passive instruction to wish well for people, or have positive feelings for your neighbor. It's a call to action, and it's very clear that this applies across the board to how we treat everyone: friends, enemies, family, strangers... we're not excused in our treatment of any person on earth. They all deserve to be given empathy.

So last week I started thinking (usually dangerous)... who are some of the most hated/feared/unknown people in my circles of influence? The answer came to me quickly: Muslims.

"Who" of Golden Rule

I'm feeling called to live out the golden rule in a powerful way that's new to me. And when defining whom the "others" are that I'm supposed to treat well, I knew it was going to be Muslims.

I don't know why. I'm not sure I even know a Muslim personally. But maybe that's because I am not ready. It's time to work on that.

"What" of Golden Rule

So how would I want to be treated by a Muslim friend?

I'd want them to see me as a whole person, not a label. I'd want them to give me space for my personality quirks, my blind spots and my screwups. I'd want them to help encourage me to be a better version of who I am today.

And I'd hope that at some point they would want to listen to my faith story. That I could tell them about the inspiration and example I see in Jesus, and how the bible continues to shape my life's journey. Yes, I'd want them to give the bible a chance, with an open mind, and to give me a chance in telling how it's shaped me.

So how I apply the golden rule to a Muslim seems pretty obvious -- I need to read the Koran, with an open mind. I cannot possibly expect someone to listen to my faith journey if I am not ready to listen to theirs, and I cannot expect them to explore my texts until I have read theirs.

"When" of Golden Rule

I'm already reading the Koran. In totally 21st Century fashion of course, with an electronic version on the Kindle device, downloaded for a dollar. It's a highly-regarded English translation, which is all I can handle although I know I'm missing a lot of the beautiful poetry that lies in the original Arabic.

It's a short text, compared to the bible. And while I'm in no rush and want to read at a pace that allows me to appreciate the message, it probably won't take more than a month to read the entire Koran.

What I've Learned in The First Chapters

-- The Koran assumes the reader already has a pretty good knowledge of the bible, both Old and New Testaments. I didn't expect all the references to the "people of the Book" , meaning Christians and Jews. Most comments about we people of the book are positive.

-- No nonsense about heaven being a place where men pleasure themselves with 72 virgins. Heaven is described as lush gardens with flowing water.

-- There are quite a few threats of hell and eternal fire, mostly for disobedience of Allah's laws.

-- There are regular instructions to be peaceful and charitable.

I'm sure as this experience continues, I'll have lots more to share. See you soon!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Working juuuuuust a bit outside the system

Jamie gave me some good feedback at home after my last post, and noted that only in the area of corporate systems did I mention that my best memories are when working slightly outside the system. She then noted that perhaps this was true in other areas as well, and I think she's right.

Corporate systems

When our company's strategy started to look really broken a few months ago, I worked to see what I could do to help. I couldn't fix the problems, so just before the holidays I transferred all my current responsibilities (10 employees across three teams, and all the responsibility for sales/revenue) to other Directors. That leaves me without a job, and pretty soon that will become formal.

Once I knew I couldn't lead my team to success, I gave it to someone who thought they could. But judging from the company's response, apparently this isn't the way things usually work in corporate systems. Usually a manager or leader will walk straight into failure for their team, if it means continued employment and a paycheck. I can't do that, so I guess you'd consider me outside the system.

Financial systems

I'll try to limit my rant here, but the system I reject is the industry of managed mutual funds. For over 40 years every analysis has shown that mutual fund managers pick stocks that do worse than the market as a whole, while racking up management fees, transaction fees and additional taxes for their clients.

It's one of the biggest scams ever, and the true role of an investment guru should probably be as educator and psychologist for the client, helping them to understand how stocks/bonds work, and then helping them cope with the volatility of those markets. Sometimes you've got to stop a person from selling low and buying high, and a financial manager can help with that.

I was fortunate with my education to learn about the markets, and I'm not interested in having someone to call for soothing advice when stocks go up and down. So we manage our investments on our own, and it's all in basic index funds. We pay almost nothing in fees and taxes, we spend less than an hour a month on managing the accounts, and our returns have beat almost every mutual fund manager in the country over the past 10 years.

So yeah, I have no interest in getting inside the system of fund management.

Social systems

White people who make the kind of money we do don't move to our neighborhood; they're supposed to live in the suburbs. We went way outside the social norm and chose to live as the alien (by race and by language), and we have no regrets!

Governmental systems

The city of Houston recently made a ruling that people cannot feed the homeless unless their food has been inspected by an official during its preparation. This impacts our family, as we've made a few trips downtown recently to meet, visit and feed some homeless people downtown on Sundays after church.

I'm not looking to get arrested of course, but this type of legal ruling isn't exactly the kind of thing I'm going to worry too much about following. The ruling was so bizarre and so opposite to the needs of the community that I have no doubt Jesus would laugh at it and keep on providing food.

Our first act of rebellion will probably be hosting a Super Bowl party for our friends, which would qualify as us feeding a group of people, with no inspection! Ha!

Religious systems

This is the one that launched so many great comments in my last post.

An elder and I discussed last year how in this day and age, it's almost impossible for a church like ours to meet all or even most the spiritual needs of its members. We live far away from the building and from each other, and may only be together once a week. In between, we are fed spiritually by online friends, neighborhood connections and office mates. And with the web, there are resources everywhere available 24/7. Most of these don't fit within my own denominational doctrine, but they have been priceless to me nonetheless. So in some ways I already am somewhat outside the system.

But what sparked the discussion here on the blog was the issue of congregational financial management, and Jamie and I will be speaking with our church's leadership soon about the topic. First I will be looking for understanding, to get an idea of their framework for thinking about, and making decisions with, the heavy responsibility of the church budget. For example, what are the priorities? What are the "have to haves" and what is up for grabs when it comes to expenses? Are those areas based on effectiveness, or is there another method for determining how ministries change? When we need another 8% to fund important work, does all of that have to come from additional giving or can we meet halfway with savings somewhere else?

Overall, I'd like to understand if our church manages its money like a family, like a business, or like something entirely different. Right now I really have no idea.

But even the fact that we'll be discussing it with the leadership, seeking to understand these things, probably puts us a little outside the way things normally work there.

Just where I like to be!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My current issues with systems

While I stand by my last post regarding my concerns about the church helping people tackle real challenges in their life, I also recognize that underneath that concern is a broader frustration with systems.

Corporate systems. Financial systems. Social systems. Governmental systems. Church/religious systems.

Corporate systems

I'm 10 years into my career and have worked for public and private companies,, big and small, and have had roles ranging from the line level to managerial level to executive level.

One consistent theme is that most people come to work sincerely wanting to do a good job. And most companies have policies and procedures that complicate or even hinder the people's ability to do those jobs.

Most of my best work in companies has been when I operate slightly outside the system, and treat people as priceless souls of God. I expect that to continue, and that when/if I retire I will look back on those moments as some of my favorites.

Financial systems

I look at our country and see the prosperity gap growing ever bigger. Even though I have the potential to be on the higher end of that scale, it sickens me. The number of poor continues to grow, the middle class is dissolving, and the rich have never been richer in the history of our world.

Within that, I specifically see the banking industry being a cause of some of this, and an apathetic bystander to some of it as well. My education and experience has given me quite a bit of insight into what is happening, and prevents me from pursuing some possible careers in that field. I could not sleep well at night getting wealthy while not creating true value, and watch as other hard workers go jobless as a cost savings that funds my luxury.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill -- capitalism is a terrible economic system, the worst of all actually, except for all those other ones that have been tried so far.

Social systems

Our family spent MLK day at the local Children's Museum, where we took part in a re-enactment of the 1963 march on Washington, complete with an excellent actor's peformance of the speech and uplifting spiritual songs peformed by a young black chorale.

My very-white kids loved every moment and have really shown interest in learning about our country's legacy of racism, from outright slavery to withheld rights to subtle prejudice. To put it bluntly, for a long time our social systems in America sucked.

But in 2011, living in a huge city with amazing diversity, many of my kids' friends are black, most of their teachers have been black, and they will surely do a far better job than I have at seeing the eternal soul in people, not the color of the packaging.

I hope our social systems, both formal and subconscious, will be a positive contribution to the ongoing progress.

Governmental systems

Enough's been written about this one elsewhere, no doubt. In a nutshell, I don't care too much about Republican/Democrat nonsense. I just want problem-solvers in Washington who are willing to take on tough issues and work on extremely complicated problems, often with imperfect data and no precedent to lean on.

And I don't see that, neither in the incumbents nor any of the hopeful people campaigning for the next round of elections. Such a small number of people in Washington influence an amazing amount of our lives.

For a start, I'd just like that small group of representatives to agree on this: we can't keep up these deficits, so we're spending less on programs/benefits and increasing taxes and everybody needs to get ready for it.

Religious systems

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised how much this area feeds off the other systems above. Many churches are organized like companies these days, with expansive financial systems and a seeming inability to face the facts about obvious trends (for example, my denomination has been consistently shrinking for 40 years but we don't talk about that).

I'm especially frustrated lately by the finances of our church. This isn't a gossipy thing or a personal issue I need to take up with the elders yet -- it's a big-picture issue I'm trying to think through.

We have an annual budget in excess of a million dollars. Starting in 2008 our church leaders made a huge effort to raise special contributions to pay off the mortgage on our building, even though the payment was only 8% of our monthly budget. I'd like to see how many members at church have a mortgage payment that's 8% of their budget.

But we responded and paid off the church building's note in 2009, several years early. I don't know what the money has gone to. Last week was our "one sermon a year" on church finances.

We were told that almost 85% of that annual budget goes to minister salaries, which leaves us nothing to fund many of the programs that are really taking off (hispanic church plant that baptized 20 people last year, a new ministry to reach out to people in crisis, an orphanage, the food bank, etc...). That's right, these programs right now will get nothing even though all signs point to them being outstanding and needed in our community.

But we were also told that it could all be funded... if we could increase giving another 8%. Yet the $850,000 in minister salaries is untouchable, and I guess we'll keep the utilities on even if the homeless don't get fed.


I will try hard to remember that none of these systems are perfect, and the people within these systems are worthy of my respect and love.

Yet as a Christian I am not called to always be compliant.

A corporate system gives me no right to treat people as less just because I am their manager on an organizational charts.

A financial system gives me no right to make millions at others' expense -- it is not a zero-sum game.

A social system gives me no right to separate my world into "us" and "them" because of skin color or gender.

A governmental system gives me no right to ask for benefits that I can't fund.

A religious system gives me no right to write checks to church and let the professional minsters take full responsibility for being the hands of Christ.

I give up these rights because I saw Jesus do the same, and his example inspires me to a higher path than letting all these systems tell me what to do.

I screw this up a lot. I need a lot of help. But I try!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The list

I'm having a heck of a time finding a place where I feel a fit at church these days. There are many people there who love me very much, and I love them in return. Yet I'm not sure they totally 100% love the real me, or just the orthodox part of me that I'm willing and brave enough to show on Sundays and Wednesdays.

While I'd like to think I have enough grace to love all parts of their souls and lives, even their flaws, they surely wear the same facade of righteousness just to play it safe. And so we go on, week after week, loving each other which is the easiest thing in the world, because really, the only parts of ourselves that we show are very lovable!

This topic came up recently in our Wednesday night discussion group, and it turned into one of those open windows where I took a bit of a chance to see what would happen.

Classmate: I think our church is an open place, and the members are open with one another. We share our lives.
Me: I don't think that's true.
Classmate: What do you mean?
Me: I think most of our lives, especially the struggles, are almost completely hidden from our church friends. Take divorce, for example. At least five couples in our group have been separated and divorced over the past few years, and none of us saw it coming. Because they never opened up to any of us about the problems in their marriage. For all I know many of you are having those types of struggles right now. Or maybe Jamie and I am. But the history shows that you'd never know and we don't talk about it here.
Classmate: What can we do about that, though? If they don't choose to be honest and share their lives, how can we know if they need help?
Me: That's just the thing -- I think we've created an environment that makes it almost impossible to be honest about these things. It's like there's a list of sins or problems that we're not allowed to talk about at church.
Classmate: (Challenging) Give me an example.
Me: Let's start with sex, since it's probably the easiest and most obvious. Do you think there are men in this church who struggle with lust, pornography and adultery?
Classmate: Probably.
Me: No probably, I guarantee it. With more than 1,000 members in this church, I guarantee you that there are triple-digit numbers of guys wrestling with pornography. I'm one of them, but it never gets talked about here.
Female classmate: (confused) Triple digits?
Me: At least 100 guys. Sexual temptation and struggle is almost written into our DNA, but after more than 30 years attending church I can't think of a single time I personally witnessed a man testify to his struggle with sexuality. We don't talk about it, and that silence makes it seem that nobody is having this problem. So 100 guys are left to feel alone with no support system until the problem grows large enough for painful consequences to set in.
Classmate: Okay, I see what you're saying. Are there more things on this list?
Me: Substance abuse, greed/stealing, addictions of various types. How many times have any of you seen a public or even classroom/group setting where a person confessed to one of these things? The only struggles that seem to be okay to discuss at church are depression, joblessness, and "not living better for Jesus". Meanwhile we wrestle with all of these other very real issues on our own.
Classmate: But what would change that?
Me: Somebody would have to be very brave and step out in trust that they could talk about this type of thing in vulnerable confession, and that the group would respond in love. If it worked, it might make it easier for the second person to come forward. If not, then we'd prove we aren't a safe place to come with problems, and we can forget about getting deeper than the happy-looking surface level in this building. I think it's tragic, and that Jesus would say this is a place for the sick and the hurting. How sad that this is the last place people want to bring their real problems.

When this was over, four different guys came up to me after class to talk privately and say this felt more "real" than anything they'd experienced at church in a long time. Another guy called me on his cell phone as he was driving home.

I'm 34 years old and have still never had a close enough friend whom I felt I could trust with tough problems. Perhaps more importantly, I haven't been the kind of friend to anyone in a way that would let them trust me with their own struggles.

No, I'm not in some kind of personal crisis mode right now. My crisis was systemic, looking at the church and not seeing it as a place where my generation can come together with their whole selves.

And I fear that if that doesn't change, there won't be much of a church left for my grandkids. If that's the case, I hope that there's some other support system of friends and loved ones who can help them when the time comes.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Difference between girls and boys, in pictures

Samantha at eight years old is the eldest of our clan, and with that comes certain responsibilities and expectations (I should know, since I'm also a firstborn).

She lives up to them beautifully, and for most of her eight years has displayed a fondness for pleasing her parents and heeding instructions. At school, her teachers say she is 100% "on" every minute of every day, making sure to follow all the rules.

Our two boys? Not as much.

I present the evidence.

Two years ago, Samantha is looking at our photographer friend Paula while the rest of us are goofing around:

This Christmas, Samantha again looking at the photographer while the boys scramble to chase whatever shiny object has their eye:

And it's not just a group setting phenomenon -- Samantha will pose beautifully all by herself if you want to snap a photo.

The boys, on the other hand...

Here's one of Jack's recents poses:

Baby Luke punching me in the face instead of posing for picture:

I rest my case.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Battle of good and evil

We are to love each other, right? It's one of Jesus' greatest commands ("love your neighbor as yourself"). But is there ever a time, place or target where our most noble emotion could be hate, and our most noble action would be to attack?

If that's ever true, then I would guess a Christian to answer it is when we are directly fighting evil itself. In the 21st Century we don't always know how to label something as 100% evil, but we look back on the past and claim that some people (Hitler, Manson) or actions (genocide, murder) may qualify.

If we go back farther, though, to New Testament writings, we see that Jesus and his disciples encountered demons during their ministries. Demons! Surely if anything was to qualify as 100% evil, then it has to be these direct servants of Satan.

One of these encounters was recorded in the book of Mark (Chapter 5) with a demon called "Legion". But instead of Jesus battling this evil spirit with aggresiveness and attack, he does three amazingly graceful things:

1) Asks for the demon's name. This isn't to gain power over Legion -- it was already established that Jesus had that power without needing to know the demon's name.

2) Grants Legion's request that he not be cast out into "the pit". We're not sure what that means, but it didn't sound good, and Jesus spared Legion that fate.

3) Grants Legion a second request, that he be cast into a herd of pigs.

Why would Jesus show kindness and grace to a demon? Is there any possible advantage to be gained by this, or any possible different fate for Legion? Does a demon retain the hope of changing sides?

And applying to today, if Jesus showed kindness to a demon, exactly when do we have license to be angry and vengeful in the name of fighting evil?